OKLAHOMA CITY — Increasing rates of COVID-19 prompted Gov. Kevin Stitt to issue an executive order Monday limiting operational hours for all Oklahoma bars and restaurants.
The order also will include a mandate that the employees of all state agencies, as well as the customers they serve, adhere to mask mandates in most instances. The leaders of the Oklahoma House and Senate said they would abide by that directive.
Stitt announced his decision at a press conference at noon, where he drew support from Commissioner of Health Lance Frye and Jim Hopper, president and CEO of the Oklahoma Restaurant Association.
The short version: all restaurants and bars in Oklahoma must close by 11 p.m. each night, beginning Thursday (restaurants may continue drive-through and curbside delivery services after those hours). In addition, all tables, seats and booths must be at least 6 feet apart (the defined distance for social distancing) or have partitions that separate seating and that are sanitized on a regular basis.
Stitt also said that beginning today, the 33,000 employees who work for State of Oklahoma agencies must wear masks when in common areas and when interacting with each other, and the same requirement applies to anyone who uses those state agencies. Stitt said his directive had no effect on the State Capitol, which is controlled by the House Speaker and Senate Speaker Pro Tempore. Both men announced Monday afternoon that they, too, would impose a mask requirement beginning today.
Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Greg Treat said the Senate will observe the governor’s executive order “in an effort to protect the health and safety of those who work in the Capitol and those who may visit the People’s House.”
House Speaker Charles McCall said the House also will observe the policy, calling it a “reasonable precaution with case counts rising in Oklahoma County and statewide.” McCall said the House has been working with the State Department of Health to develop health and safety protocols for the new legislative session and already had plans to test one contingency plan by implementing a rotating in-office and virtual work schedule for House staff, meaning each House department will have half of its staff in the office and half working virtually. The idea is to ensure the system will work, if it had to be implemented.
Further plans being developed will address legislative proceedings, room access and capacity, social distancing and personal protective equipment guidelines, virtual protocols, and other items as determined by health professionals, McCall said.
Stitt said he and state leaders also had been discussing strategies to stem the spread of COVID-19, and two suggestions were closing bars after 11 p.m. and ensuring patrons in restaurants were socially distancing. That discussion — and Monday’s executive order — was prompted by the fact that cases of COVID-19 continue to increase in Oklahoma and across the nation. He said the number of Oklahomans hospitalized with COVID-19 increased 19 percent in the last week, adding “throughout this entire battle, the first priority is to protect the health and lives of Oklahomans. That’s still true today and it’s always going to be true.”
Stitt said controlling COVID-19 is crucial to protecting Oklahomans, but his actions are balanced with the need to keep state businesses safely open while getting Oklahoma students back to in-person classes by the end of Christmas Break, something he said health care professionals say is crucial for their mental health.
“Those are the goals, and it’s going to take everyone’s help in the State of Oklahoma to get there,” he said.
Stitt said the restaurant and bar mandates are calculated to ensure businesses can continue to operate safely and ensuring everyone is safely distanced, while installing sanitized partitions between tables, booths and bar areas will safely keep groups separated. And, while Stitt reiterated his stance that he would not impose a statewide mask mandate, he said he continues to urge residents to wear masks, wash their hands and watch their distance, proven strategies that help prevent the spread of the virus.
Hopper said the Oklahoma Restaurant Association supports Stitt’s actions.
“We’re committed to doing our part as an industry,” Hopper said, of guidelines for restaurants and bars, as well as masks for state employees, adding the association will direct restaurant workers to wear masks during their shifts.
Frye said the actions are necessary to contain the spread of COVID-19.
“If you think it’s not in your community, you’re wrong,” he said, adding while masks work, that can’t be the only action.
He said with the Thanksgiving holiday coming next week, residents may consider taking actions such as testing to ensure they are negative before getting together with family, spreading tables throughout the house to ensure social distancing, and opening doors and windows or even eating outside, weather permitting.
Stitt said he doesn’t have a deadline in mind for his mandate, adding it is contained within the emergency order that he must re-active every 30 days (he last extended his order Oct. 23).
“We think these are reasonable steps we can make,” he said, adding while the state has the right to pull licenses from certain businesses, he isn’t worried about forcing restaurants and bars to comply because he believes they will. “We’re not thinking about enforcement at this point.”